Univ. of Illinois announces appeal in federal case involving public records, FERPA

The University of Illinois announced Tuesday it is appealing a judge’s ruling that federal student privacy law does not prevent the release of records under the state open records act.

In court filings, the university also asks Judge Joan Gottschall to stay her ruling while the appeal moves forward in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case involves a dispute between UI and the Chicago Tribune, which requested documents from the school while investigating its admissions process. The newspaper’s investigation revealed that the relatives of high-profile people were given special treatment when applying to attend the university.

The paper asked for the names and addresses of certain applicants’ parents, along with information about people who contacted the university on behalf of the applicants. It requested the records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

UI contends a federal privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, prevents the release of those records. Under FERPA, schools can lose their federal funding for disclosing confidential education records – though the U.S. Department of Education has never pulled funding for that reason.

In a March 7 decision, Gottschall rejected the university’s argument and ruled that FERPA merely puts conditions on the receipt of federal funds and doesn’t bar the release of information.

“FERPA does not impose any requirement on state officials,” she wrote. “The state has the option to choose whether or not to accept FERPA’s conditions.”

In their motion for a stay, university attorneys argue enforcing the decision during the appeal would cause irreparable harm because more than $500 million in federal funds hang in the balance.

“We take seriously the special trust placed in our institution when applicants, students and their families share the details of their lives with us,” University President Michael Hogan said in a news release. “We are compelled to safeguard this private information both to honor this trust and to ensure the continued federal funding support for students from all backgrounds at our campuses, as well as the important work of our faculty.”

Though there is no set timeline, a decision from the appeals court could be a year or more away.